Tag Archives: Avant-garde

CAPSULE: USED AND BORROWED TIME (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Sophia Romma

FEATURING: Cam Kornman, Emily Seibert, Clas Duncan, Alice Bahlke, Grant Morenz, Gavin Roher, Maureen O’Connor

PLOT: A blind old Jewish woman eats a mystic pie served up by a racist at an Alabama fair and goes back in time to relive her experiences in an interracial romance during the civil rights struggle.

Still from Used and Borrowed Time (2020)

COMMENTS: According to the protagonist’s own words, time is not the commodity that’s been used and borrowed in Used and Borrowed Time. That conundrum is far from the strangest thing in this avant-garde1  production, though. The time-travel plot alone is a little bit strange, since the core story about a doomed interracial love affair in the Deep South in the early Sixties would normally be treated with “respectful” realism. It’s even odder, though, that the impetus for the journey is supplied via psychedelic pies sold at an Alabama fair by rabid anti-Semites who drawl their way though a series of MAGA taking points that would make Richard Spencer complain “geez, these guys sound a little bit racist.” Add to the mix the fact that the dialogue inconsistently adopts a loose, rap-inspired rhyme scheme (“You are so uptight. And you look afright. How’s a lost soul like you supposed to make it home alright?”), is decorated with cheap out-of-the-box CGI effects, and is enacted with the passion and talent of a community theater troupe, and you have an oddity ready made for raising eyebrows. And, it’s nearly four hours long! (Thankfully, it’s split into two parts on Amazon Prime).

Now, I can’t say that Used and Borrowed Time is actually worth your time, all the time. The project desperately needed a good editor to salvage a halfway decent, very weird 90-minute feature out of this well-intentioned but epically overlong jumble of platitudes. There are a few good things to highlight: the musical interludes from a soulful R&B chanteuse, for example. The effects occasionally work, like when a pair of glowing red cats eyes fade in and out like glowing embers from a wire crate in the background as the young couple prepare to make surreptitious love in a barn. And there are a lot of funny moments and bits of dialogue, some of which may be intentional. When the old lady steals a piece of apple pie which makes her all green and sparkly and throws her into a void, she laments “I should never have indulged in that voodoo pie bliss.” When a romantic liaison is interrupted by the withered old green-glowing time traveler replacing Steadroy’s nubile sweetheart in his arms, his reaction is a deadpan, “What’s going on? I was just about to shag Eva in the shed!” It takes a family of hicks five minutes to recite grace on Christmas Eve dinner, because they keep interrupting the prayer with digressions, blasphemies, and threats to murder each other. And you have to give some bonus points to any script that attempts to rhyme “cracker” with “pecker.”

Having said that, the negatives here far outweigh the positives; and if the negatives weren’t frequently softened by being so darn strange, the movie would be unwatchable. Apart from the distracting cheapness of the production (amateurish acting, threadbare sets, a Halloween wig used as a major costuming choice), Used and Borrowed Time is far too infatuated with it’s own nobility and cleverness. More devastatingly, it’s far too long. The family of white villains is composed of a timid young adult, a bitter and vindictive matron, a weak-willed sister who was educated in righteousness when she married a senator from above the Mason-Dixon line, along with one interesting character, a heretical gay uncle who’s just as hateful and bigoted as the others, but whose constant perverse and sacrilegious utterances everyone accepts with a shrug. Their endless dialogues go over and over the same territory time and time again, establishing that they are, indeed, irredeemable racists and all-around awful specimens of humanity. The young lovers’ attempts to get it on are repetitively interrupted by the sparkly time-traveling woman (whose charming Southern accent, by the way, has changed over entirely to a grating New York Jewish one over the decades). When the couple are captured by the redneck family, they are, once again, locked up and threatened in various ways over and over, and despite the time-traveler constantly undoing the ropes that bind them, they always get caught again, sometimes without explanation. Quite simply, the script keeps repeating itself like its caught in a time loop, until the drama of the situation yields to cries from the audience to “get on with it!”

It’s difficult to criticize a film whose heart—both ethically and aesthetically—is generally in the right place (although residents of Alabama might disagree), but the result here leaves much to be desired. Used and Borrowed Time will find probably draw most of its audience from a woke anti-racism crowd looking to feel smart and self-congratulatory while looking down their noses at some admittedly despicable racist strawmen. But I think it’s more of a find for for those of us who seek out the oddest ideas committed to celluloid—whether they be executed well or badly.

Used and Borrowed Time is currently streaming free for Amazon Prime members.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“This film manages to beautifully deliver an important message while remaining artistic and unique.”–Adva Reichman, Cult Critic (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: HOLY TRINITY (2019)

DIRECTED BY: Molly Hewitt

FEATURING: Molly Hewitt, Theo Germain

PLOT: A dominatrix finds she’s able to speak to the dead after huffing cans of new age air freshener, but her newfound viral celebrity threatens her relationship with her submissive partner.

Still from Holy Trinity (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: The plot involves a dominatrix speaking to the dead after huffing air freshener, so they would really have to drop the ball for this not to catch our attention. Spoiler alert: they don’t drop the ball; in fact, the movie comes awfully close to earning the coveted “” rating.

COMMENTS: The character in the Marge-Simpson-sized fishnet hat stuffed with pink balloons wearing two-inch lashes with lime-green eye shadow only gets a couple of lines. She is not a sideshow freak in Holy Trinity‘s strange world, but just a regular background character1, like the pattycake-playing human kitty cat or the big bearded medium in lavender robes with flowers in their hair.

By contrast, Trinity, our friendly orange-haired dominatrix protagonist, and her sweet submissive slave, the shaven-headed Baby, are almost “straight” characters. Their relationship is tender, despite the fact that Trinity keeps Baby tied on a leash about ninety percent of the time. They exist in a flipped fantasy world where alternative culture and sexuality is the norm, and normality is nowhere to be found. The giant Glamhag corporation supplies all this world’s needs, from diet sodas to Orixaoco spiritual air freshener. Every living room looks like it was conceived and designed by a drag queen art major while tripping on ecstasy. TV sets are draped in decorative foam. Everyone spends two hours a day putting on makeup and selecting their wardrobe just to go to the corner grocery store. The bananas aesthetic reaches its height at Sunday “church” service, where the local weirdos all gather for a weekly bacchanalia that’s a cross between a Halloween pride parade and a makeshift disco set up at a school cafeteria held on “come-as-a-sexy-nun” night.

Besides all that, there’s visions of the afterworld, a big butch angel, discussion of the ethical implications of psychic powers on the consensuality of bondage and discipline sessions, and shots at the hypocrisy of religion (typified by a priest who’s a big Madonna fan). Also, although everyone in the movie speaks like an American (with the exception of one character who speaks subtitled Portuguese), they pay for everything with Euros. That currency choice is one of the least strange features of Holy Trinity‘s universe, but it strikes me as a good reminder of how far the movie goes to ensure that absolutely everything is off-center.

is the obvious influence here, but instead of the witty misanthropy and satirical ugliness of his early years, or the campy nostalgia of his later works, the movie sets a sunny, optimistic tone of triumphant intoxication and celebration of eccentricity. Holy Trinity‘s universe is a sex-positive, kink-positive, freak-accepting psychic utopia.

Holy Trinity makes its debut at the Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ  Film Festival tomorrow, July 19. I have no doubt it’s an appropriate and welcoming venue. But while there are plenty of obviously gay and lesbian characters in the film, the central relationship explored here is heterosexual (although ultra-kinky). Holy Trinity is “queer” in the original sense of the word, but I’d hate to see it pigeonholed as an LBGTQ special interest film: like The Rocky Horror Picture Show or the works of John Waters, it speaks to all free spirits and outsiders, even the straightest among us. If, like me, you’re the kind of person who relishes the opportunity to tell casual acquaintances “I saw this movie about a paint-huffing dominatrix who talks to the dead the other night,” you’ll want to prioritize this one.

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: DECASIA (2002)

Also see Alfred Eaker’s take on Decasia

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Uncredited documentary subjects

PLOT: Scored to a disturbing minimalist composition, a parade of early 20th century images on decayed and damaged film stock march across the screen, forming hypnotic abstract landscapes.

Still from Decasia (2002)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: We avoided the hypnotic experimental documentary subgenre on our first pass through the List of the Weirdest Movies ever made, because this peculiar corner of art films normally wed an unusual (weird) form to commonplace (not-weird) subject matter. When it comes to honoring movies as Apocrypha, however, it’s harder to argue that formally groundbreaking movies like Koyaanisqatsi—and this one—can be excluded from being considered among the strangest things the mind of man has come up with.

COMMENTS: A boxer punches an amoeba. A man in a fez prays at a mummy’s tomb, in negative image. A lone airplane flies through the sky, almost perfectly centered in a wavering iris puncturing the darkness. Nuns and schoolchildren strobe in and out of existence. The screen is filled with nothing more than a billowing cloud. Abstract patterns whir by, almost looking as if they were drawn by hand—a butterfly here, a flower petal there—and fade away to reveal a shy geisha.

Experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison scoured over what must have been thousands of hours of partially decayed stock footage to select the most wondrous and poetic images time accidentally created. A complete taxonomy of film damage is on display here. Images sometimes decay from the center outward, sometimes from the edges inward. Frequently, the film is warped so that abstract cracked lines obscure the underlying picture, but often the effects are more surprising. Individual stills might look like gibberish, but because each frame of film holds a slightly different piece of information about the whole, when the series is run through a projector, ghostly figures emerge. The visuals often resemble ‘s splatter-paint-on-the-celluloid experiments, except that the effects here have been created entirely by the natural degradation of cellulose.

Decasia‘s reliance on a minimalist classical music score obviously recalls ‘s time-lapse documentaries. But whereas Philip Glass’ work on the “Qatsi trilogy” of films was smooth and dreamy, Michael Gordon’s composition is dissonant and confrontational. Low strings create a ceaseless rhythm, while violins fall through microtonal scales in a long, slow decay. Horns enter the mix like distant alarms. Gordon specified that certain instruments in the Basel Sinfonetta be deliberately out of tune. In keeping with the theme of recycling, he used discarded car brake drums he found in a junkyard as an instrument, along with detuned pianos. His intent, he said, was to “make the orchestra sound like it was covered in cobwebs, with instruments that had been sitting for a hundred years, creaky and warped and deteriorated” The uncomfortable but still beautiful sounds divert our thoughts to the darker implications of the pictures dancing and disintegrating before our eyes. The music and the images exist in such a perfect, unconscious  symbiosis that it’s meaningless to wonder which came first.

Decasia is an authentically Surrealist documentary. The startling images have all been generated via a random process, with the interpretation up to the individual viewer. Everyone in these film clips is long dead, and soon the damaged images themselves will fade away to nothing. And yet, the experience is marvelous, not depressing.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The unexpected thing is that its dying, in this shower of black-and-white psychedelia, is quite beautiful.”–Anita Gates, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Tadd.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

Must See

“These films have never been about the effect of technology, of industry on people. It’s been that everyone: politics, education, things of the financial structure, the nation-state structure, language, the culture, religion, all of that exists within the host of technology. So it’s not the effect of, it’s that everything exists within [technology]. It’s not that we use technology, we live technology. Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe…”–director Godfrey Reggio

“I just shot anything that I thought would look good on film. Shooting bums, as well as buildings, didn’t matter. It was all the same from my standpoint. I just shot the form of things.”–director of photography Ron Fricke

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: the music of Philip Glass

PLOT: The film explores the fragile balance of humanity’s use of and interaction with the natural world and the inexorable advance of time through montage, juxtaposing time-lapse and slow-motion photography.

Still from Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Koyaanisqatsi is a landmark motion picture, creating a memorable visual language and utilizing time-honored cinematic techniques in wholly new ways. But it’s a strange sort of success: a wordless visual essay which points the finger firmly at its audience to the beat of a musical minimalist icon. An experimental film that becomes a movie lingua franca would normally be an easy call for this list. But, you see, we’re kind of running out of room…

COMMENTS: My son was an unexpectedly gracious and patient viewer of Koyaanisqatsi. Surely it would be too much to expect a pre-adolescent boy to be enthused about a movie that opens with ten minutes of canyons and clouds. But he was a game spectator, settling for his own running commentary to keep himself amused. So it was a particular thrill when we arrived at the legendary implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, leading him to blurt out a shocked “What?” followed by silence throughout the ensuing montage of destruction, and concluding with a pained, “Why would they do that?”

Director Reggio, a veteran of media campaigns to warn of the dangers of technology, couldn’t have asked for a better reaction. Given the most common translation of the film’s Hopi-language title–“life out of balance”–it’s clear that we’re supposed to be horrified by mankind’s wanton destruction of both the natural world and its own psyche. In fact, it’s a little shocking to see how angry contemporary critics were at the film’s stance: Roger Ebert called it “an invitation to knee-jerk environmentalism of the most sentimental kind” while Variety described it as “a cynical display of decadence intending to edify and anger to action, but instead alienating with its one-sidedness.” More than three decades later, continued environmental peril has placed the judgment of history strongly on the side of the movie. But Koyaanisqatsi remains an effective advocate on its own, Continue reading CAPSULE: KOYAANISQATSI (1982)

CAPSULE: CAFE FLESH (1982)

“Go play in the fallout.”

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Stephen Sayadian (as Rinse Dream)

FEATURING: Michelle Bauer (as Pia Snow), Andy Nichols, Paul McGibboney, Marie Sharp, Tantala Ray, Dennis Edwards, Kevin Jay

PLOT: “Able to exist, to sense… to feel everything, but pleasure. In a world destroyed, a mutant universe, survivors break down to those who can and those who can’t. 99% are Sex Negatives. Call them erotic casualties. They want to make love, but the mere touch of another makes them violently ill. The rest, the lucky one percent, are Sex Positives, those whose libidos escaped unscathed. After the Nuclear Kiss, the Positives remain to love, to perform… and the others, well, we Negatives can only watch… can only come…to … Cafe Flesh…”

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Cafe Flesh is a post-apocalyptic adult film about people who become violently ill from human touch. Generally speaking, adult films are pro-sex, so it is definitely a unique entry in the world of adult cinema. Cafe Flesh was not the only post apocalyptic adult film—it was a popular sub-genre in the 1980s—but I do think it might have been the first. The copious cutaways to the gawking, impotent patrons during sex shows were peculiar, but completely relevant to the plot. As odd as they were they fit in the context of the film. The first couple of performance-art sex scenes were definitely wacky. A lonely housewife is seduced by a milkman in a rat mask while three grown men dressed like babies look on from their high chairs. A guy in a huge pencil headpiece bangs one of the broads in the office while the naked receptionist looks on typing and repeatedly asking “Do you want me to type a memo?” Cafe Flesh definitely teeters on the edge of weirdness, but forced at gunpoint to answer “weird or not weird,” I would have to go with “not weird.”

COMMENTS: I was a huge fan of Stephen Sayadian’s Dr. Caligari and couldn’t wait to check out some of his other work. Turned out, his other features were all adult films. My exposure to hardcore films at that time was pretty slim. After checking out Night Dreams and Cafe Flesh, however, I was inspired to check out several other adult titles from the 1970s and 1980s. Sadly, very few were as entertaining or as unusual as Stephen Sayadian’s.

The plot verbiage above is taken directly from the film’s introduction. The primary focus is on two of the club’s regulars, Nicky and Lana, “The Dagwood and Blondie of Cafe Flesh,” so dubbed by the club’s delightfully sarcastic emcee Max Melodramatic. I gathered from the film’s opening statement that the 99% of the population do not only become physically sick by human touch, but are also impotent and couldn’t get the job done anyway— although it really doesn’t go into much detail on the subject. The post-apocalyptic victims gather together at Cafe Flesh to gawk at art noveau hardcore sex shows. The performers are not volunteers, by any means. Enforcers are out there to flush out sex-positives who are not performing. Angel, a doe-eyed virginal lass from Wyoming, is taken away to do her part in entertaining the 99%.

If you were impotent and human touch made you vomit, would you really want to go to a sex club? They mock the torture of the audience numerous times, the majority of the abuse coming from the aforementioned emcee. Andrew Nichols gives a genuinely standout performance. He delivers his wordy dialog with complete ease; I did not question for a second that he was the emcee of a seedy post-apocalyptic sex club. Also stepping up to the plate and knocking it out of the park is beautiful Michelle Bauer (billed here as Pia Snow, the name under which she made a few adult films at the start of her career). Bauer should be a familiar face to those of us who enjoy 1980s horror cinema. She appeared in a ton of horror flicks: The Tomb, Terror Night, Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers, Nightmare Sisters, and Deathrow Diner, to name a few. I found her character here to be so very likable, I really wanted her to have a happy ending, and indeed she does.

Obviously, considering the plot, the sex is limited strictly to the shows the sex negatives watch. Dripping with 1980s flare and fashion, these stage shows are creative and well-costumed. Stephen Sayadian’s films embrace everything that was fabulous and flattering from that decade: sharp angular silhouettes, bold solids, wide black and white stripes. It was all about geometry then—at least, the cool stuff was. I have been suitably impressed with the sets and costumes for all three of the Sayadian films I have seen. The superb synth soundtrack from Mitchell Froom hits every right note; absolutely perfect musical accompaniment. I love this soundtrack so much that I own it. Black and white striped teddies, angular phone booths, sunglass-bespectacled studs, naked ladies in cases—there is just so much to say about the aesthetics here.

Cafe Flesh is a visual treat that oozes the 1980s with good performances and a badass soundtrack. A highly entertaining, tongue-in-cheek, apocalyptic adult adventure.

Fun fact; if you do a Google search for an adult film title, its IMDB listing is usually the first or second hit that will come up. If, however, you are on the IMDB website and search that title, it will not come up at all, unless you use the advanced search feature and toggle the button to “include” adult titles every time.

GoreGirls’ Dr. Caligari review (NSFW)

GoreGirls’ Night Dreams review (NSFW)

GoreGirls’ Cafe Flesh photo gallery (NSFW)

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…in terms of sci-fi pornography set in a post-apocalyptic netherworld, you can’t anymore cerebral than this… Sex Negatives force the Sex Positives (the 1% left unaffected by the fallout) to perform bizarre, surrealistic sex acts for their amusement.”–Yum Yum, House of Self-Indulgence (DVD)

326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

Le sang d’un poète

“The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.”–T.S. Eliot

RecommendedWeirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller

PLOT: A man sketches a face on a canvas; when he sees the mouth he has drawn beginning to move, he smudges it out, but finds that the orifice has affixed itself to his hand. He eventually gets rid of it by wiping it onto the face of a statue; the statue comes to life and sends him through a mirror into a strange hotel where he spies on surreal scenarios through keyholes. Returning through the mirror, he smashes the statue, is transformed into one himself, then finds himself playing a card game and shoots himself in the head when he realizes he cannot win.

Blood of a Poet (1930)

BACKGROUND:

  • Jean Cocteau was already an established playwright, artist and novelist before creating this, his first film.
  • Le sang d’un poète was financed by Vicomte Charles de Noailles, who also produced L’Age d’Or. They were both filmed in 1930, but first public screening of Blood of a Poet was delayed for over a year until the scandal caused by ‘s sacrilegious film had died down. (This history explains why the Blood of a Poet‘s date is sometimes given as 1930, its date of production, and sometimes 1932, based on when it was first screened.)
  • De Noailles and his wife and friends originally appeared in the film as members of the audience, but they did not know what they were supposed to be reacting to. When the Vicomte discovered they were applauding a suicide he demanded the scene be cut. Cocteau re-shot it with a different audience composed of his friends, among whom was the female impersonator and acrobat Barbette, an underground Parisian celebrity.
  • Elizabeth Lee Miller, who plays the statue, was the student and lover of Surrealist artist Man Ray. She later became a successful photographer in her own right and never again appeared onscreen.
  • Blood of a Poet is the first in Cocteau’s loose “Orphic” trilogy, followed by Orpheus (1950) and concluding with The Testament of Orpheus (1960).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Cocteau recommended that we view his movie as if it were an enigmatic painting, which leaves us with a plethora of surrealistic frames to consider. We picked a particularly bizarre composition: the “desperate hermaphrodite” in Room 23. The scene begins with a chaise lounge with a spinning hypno-wheel, and with a periodic drum roll new elements are added: a pancake makeup face, line-drawn breasts, a white fright wig, stars and various pieces of clothing strewn about the scene. In a final gesture he/she pulls off a black cloth to reveal the words “danger de mort” (“danger of death”) labeling his/her crotch region.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Collapsing tower; hand mouth; desperate hermaphrodite

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Blood of a Poet is Jean Cocteau’s initial attempt to translate poetry—or rather to place one inside the trancelike state enjoyed and suffered by the poet—on film. Simultaneously quaint and avant-garde, it’s raw, primitive opium-dream weirdness; pioneering in its day, but still capable of startling today’s viewers with its irrational exhuberances.


Trailer for The Blood of a Poet made for a 2010 screening with a new score by DJ Spooky

COMMENTS: Jean Cocteau denied making a Surrealist film as vehemently as René Magritte denied painting a pipe. (“It is often said that Continue reading 326. THE BLOOD OF A POET (1930)

321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)

Kurutta ippêji

“Things are not what they seem; nor are they otherwise.”–Shurangama Sutra

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Teinosuke Kinugasa

FEATURING: Masuo Inoue, Yoshie Nakagawa

PLOT: A man takes a job as a janitor in a mental asylum in 1920s Japan to be closer to his institutionalized wife. He is occasionally visited by his daughter, whose marriage he opposes. One night he attempts to escape the hospital with his wife, but she does not appear to recognize him and is reluctant to leave her cell.

Still from A Page of Madness (1926)

BACKGROUND:

  • A Page of Madness was co-written by future Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, who later published it as a short story. Kawabata was a major figure in Shinkankakuha, a Japanese literary movement influenced by the European avant-garde. (It should be noted that at least one scholar questions Kawabata’s actual contribution to the script, suggesting he should only be credited for “original story”).
  • Some experts suggest the title met better be translated from the Japanese as “A Page Out of Order,” a pun on the fragmented narrative.
  • Director Teinosuke Kinugasa began his theatrical career as an onnagata, an actor who specialized in playing female roles at a time when women were not allowed to be public performers.
  • Kinugasa financed the film himself. Star Masuo Inoue donated his acting services for free.
  • Like most Japanese silent films, A Page of Madness would have originally been screened with a live benshi (narrator), who would explain plot points that weren’t obvious to the spectators, and might even offer his own interpretations of the director’s vision. No recordings or other records of a benshi’s thoughts on Page of Madness exist.
  •  Kinugasa was credited with 34 films before this, all of which are lost. His long and storied career was highlighted by 1953 samurai drama Gate of Hell (which won the Palme D’Or and an Oscar).
  • The only copy of A Page of Madness was thought to have been lost in a fire in 1950; a surviving negative was discovered in 1971. A 2007 restoration added an additional 19 minutes of rediscovered footage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The smiling Noh masks the janitor places over the faces of the inmates of the asylum, a sight both strange and touching.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Crazy cell dancer; madwoman cam;  asylum masquerade

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Do you think today’s Japanese films are “weird”? Are you grateful for that fact? Then take a trip back in this time capsule to the great-granddaddy of Japanese weirdness with this survey of vintage insanity, the Rising Sun’s first attempt to translate the European avant-garde into its own idiom. Japan takes to Surrealism like a squid takes to playing a piano.


Blu-ray trailer for A Page of Madness (and Portrait of a Young Man)

COMMENTS: There’s little question that A Page of Madness is more Continue reading 321. A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926)